Tipping Styles of the Rich and Famous

Tip Jar Libby Spencer, commenting on a hypothetical tipping experience I made up to illustrate a point, observes that, “Having both worked on the serving end and been entertained by the wealthy at fancy dinners in my lifetime, it’s been my experience that the wealthier patrons are often the most demanding and the worst tippers of the lot.”

I don’t have any data on this but it’s not inconceivable. Anecdotally, people who have worked as servers at one point in their lives do tend to be more forgiving of slow service and more generous as tippers. Maybe wealthy people are less likely to have had that experience?

Regardless, the reason for the post is that the comment brought to mind a related issue that has long puzzled me: Why do we tip based on the price of the meal rather than, say, time spent at the restaurant, perception of work performed, quality of service, or something else. It’s not intuitively obvious that it’s remarkably harder to bring me a $35 filet and a $10 glass of pinot noir than an $8 burger and a $4.50 mug of beer. Yet, the first waiter is supposed to get $9 while the second one gets a mere $2.50 if following the 20 percent rule.

Unless the service is atrocious, I follow the custom, despite not understanding it, except that I tend to tip substantially more than 20 percent on small tabs. But that’s more a function of the irrationality of tipping than the logic of the custom.

Image: Wise Bread via Google

UPDATE: A December 2007 NYT feature, “Are Rich People Generous Tippers?” which examined several studies and reported that, “research on this subject does not seem to support the hypothesis that the rich are more stingy.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I grew up with neighbors and classmates who were among the very rich. They didn’t get that way by throwing money around.

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Why do we tip based on the price of the meal rather than, say, time spent at the restaurant, perception of work performed, quality of service, or something else. It’s not intuitively obvious that it’s remarkably harder to bring me a $35 filet and a $10 glass of pinot noir than an $8 burger and a $4.5 mug of beer. Yet, the first waiter is supposed to get $9 while the second one gets a mere $2.50 if following the 20 percent rule.

    Three reasons–one is that in the same restaurant, when all things are equal, a bigger tab usually means more service rendered, so it translates that way.

    The second is that in the case between a less expensive restaurant and a more expensive restaurant, you are typically paying for better quality service. Most high-end restaurants are very picky about the quality of their wait staff, so these restaurants generally deliver higher quality service. So the wait staff is compensated accordingly.

    Finally, it’s just EASIER to figure out a tip when it’s a percentage of the bill than figuring out a host of other, vague factors.

  3. Cernig says:

    Hi James,

    My wife is a restaurant manager and worked as a server for many years. Everything she and her workmates tell me backs Libby’s assertion as a general rule. There are notable exceptions to it though. I know of servers who have been tipped hundreds on a $20 diner meal by richer customers who felt their service deserved it.

    On a more interesting political note – did you know that servers comprise a notable loophole in minimum wage rules? They get paid as little as $2.13 an hour and are supposed to make the rest up in tips. That’s a lottery, of course, and many might end a week having not done so – especially as the economy declines and less customers have free cash.

    So next time you’re in a restaurant, have a thought for your server. Did you help him/her make minimum wage for the time they spent running at your beck and call?

    Regards, C

  4. Cernig says:

    Oh and BTW, studies done in the industry show that even the top tier of servers only make 18% in tips. The industry average is 12%. You’re one of the good guys, James, but a lot of customers are short-tipping.

    Regards, C

  5. Triumph says:

    I am filthy rich and I tip pretty well–sometimes in excess of 100% of the bill. It all depends on where I am eating, how much cash I have, and whether I am going to get a bunch of lame small bills back as change.

    For instance, if my lunch bill is $45.00, a normal 20% tip would make the tally come to $54.00. Since I hate carrying around a bunch of crap bills like $20s, $10s, and $1s, I will normally just plop down a Ben Franklin and leave.

    If my bill is $40, the 20% would make it $48–in that case, I would put down a US Grant.

    Some of the waitstaff at my regular haunts know my trick and they will undoubtedly push for me to order enough food and wine to push me up to a $42 tab to increase the chances for a mega tip.

    I admire their ingenuity and always succumb to their menu “suggestions.”

  6. Steve says:

    They get paid as little as $2.13 an hour and are supposed to make the rest up in tips…So next time you’re in a restaurant, have a thought for your server. Did you help him/her make minimum wage for the time they spent running at your beck and call?

    I’m sorry, why is it my responsibility to make sure someone gets paid minimum wage? Why would someone take a $2.13/hr job? Mr. C, does your wife hire servers at $2.13/hr – shame on her. And how am I to rectify this injustice? Should I always ask my server their salary and then try and bring them up to some standard wage? What wage? Minimum wage, my wage, what I think their education and experience warrants? This is too arbitrary. I’m very comfortable tipping my ~15% when I feel it is warranted.

    And while were on the subject, this expectation for tips is getting way out of hand. e.g. Ice cream shop workers, coffee house workers, sandwich shop workers have jars out for tips; I heard on the radio the other day that any one who didn’t leave a tip for the maid at a hotel they stayed at was cheap. Next I’ll be expected to tip the city bus driver, the mail man, the gardener, my kid’s teacher and all my elected officials. I mean, they all provide a service to me and most don’t get paid enough for what they do.

    I just hope someone tips me since I won’t have enough money to pay my bills after all those tips.

  7. MarkT says:

    I work on my laptop for hours at restaurants and coffee shops.

    I tip based on purchase and time: if I work for 2 hours I’ll tip 40% since I occupied the table for twice as long as a normal person.

  8. I certainly don’t mean to imply that all wealthy people are terrible tippers. The ones I call friends are all egregious overtippers.

    But I remember a story about the Bush twins running wild in NYC a few years ago, getting comped something like $6,000 worth of booze and stiffing the waitstaff. It’s not uncommon among a certain subset of trustfunders. Anecdotal evidence of course but I’d put it up against any study of self reported tipping practices.